Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Ich bin ein Berliner

(Click on any image for a larger view)

There was a time when anywhere in Europe was comfortable. Even a country I’d never been to before was snug and peaceful because I had lived on the continent long enough to know how it breathed. I could feel the regular beat of its pulse beneath the city streets. I understood its rhythms.

When I stepped off the plane and onto German soil a week ago, it had been nearly a decade since I’d last set foot in Europe. The continent lost its ability to "culture shock" me long ago, but this time around, it did rattle my comfort zone. I’ll admit to a certain degree of apprehension. Yet I embraced the feeling, for it signaled something magical was about to break through.

Does familiarity return instinctively, like riding a bicycle after many years without one? Yes. And all it takes is something as simple as a cappuccino and a pastry in a small, corner café to rewind the clock and reorient the equilibrium.

I spent several days in Berlin while touring Germany, Switzerland, Austria and the Czech Republic a decade ago. I remembered it as a city skyline dominated by cranes; the largest construction site in Europe.

Not much has changed.

All in all, Berlin is something of an ugly city. It has a character unique in mainland Europe, borne out of its 20th century history — an era of destruction and neglect. Its ugliness — utilitarian modernism, really — points both to the American bombs that shattered its splendor during World War II and the malevolent resistance to anything beautiful under Communism that ensured the demolition of much of what remained.

Berlin exists in the presences of absence.

I decided to avoid most of the places I’d been before. Besides, on that trip, primarily a sightseeing exercise, I’d neglected the city’s phenomenal museums, most of which are situated in the old DDR, where we were staying. My wife was here for business and while she worked, I traipsed from one museum to another (a half dozen in all), trying to keep dry and warm amidst a daily barrage of cold, pelting rain and snow.

I stood dumbstruck in the Pergamon, dwarfed by the sweep of the Roman Pergamon Altar and the size of the ancient Ishtar Gate of Babylon, all marvels I had studied in college art history classes.

The Altes Museum housed Greek and Egyptian treasures, such as the famous bust of Queen Nefertiti.

At the Alte Nationalgalerie, I gave in to my luxurious addiction of German Romanticism, seeking out one of my favorite artists, Caspar David Friedrich. Friedrich’s work, full of ruined churches and tiny, isolated individuals set amongst massive landscapes, is steeped in loneliness, remoteness and desolation.

I tracked down works by another of my favorite artists, the Italian Sandro Botticelli (has anyone ever painted more beautiful women?), at the Gemäldegalerie where I also enjoyed Rembrandt, Vermeer and a host of other Dutch artists.

The Jewish experience weighed heavily on my mind throughout the trip. I visited the Neue Synagoge, which would have been destroyed during Hitler’s infamous Kristallnacht but for the bravery of the local police chief who actually drove the SS out at gunpoint.

Two additional, powerful sites did not exist when I was last here. The first was The Jewish Museum, whose architecture has as much to say about the Jewish experience as the items it holds. Shaped like a shattered Star of David, it is full of hallways that go nowhere, both massive and infinitesimal voids, support beams that appear to have crashed through the superstructure, and terrific gashes in the metallic skin.

The Holocaust Memorial, with a small but powerful subterranean museum, is an uneven sea of 2,711 alternating sized cement blocks which, while intentionally designed without symbolism, nonetheless have the effect of producing a feeling of agitation and upheaval.

I also found myself spending a lot of time at the magnificent Berliner Dom, a church I’d loved on the outside my first visit, but never managed to get inside.

My evenings were spent with Stephanie and her compatriots from the British Council’s Transatlantic Network 2020 program, designed to foster better relations between Europe and the U.S. An eclectic group of young movers and shakers from around the world, they were a delight to get to know and spend time with.

After the better part of a week in Berlin, Stephanie's obligations ended, and rather than head straight home, we boarded a train for Wilhelmshaven, the small, North Sea coastal town that was once a major U-Boat hub. It was here that Stephanie stayed when she lived in Germany shortly before we were married. And it was here that I finally met Wolf and Karin, her lovely guest family, and their grown children.

I’ve heard my wife speak plenty of German (which I do not speak), but not in this sort of context and certainly not to this degree. I was reminded somewhat of accompanying my mother and grandparents to Africa and standing by in awe as an African dialect I’ve never heard before poured from their mouths.

We also stopped in Bremen, a charming medieval town known as the site of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, “The Bremen Town-Musicians,” and one of Stephanie’s favorite retreats.

My previous time in Germany, I flew in to Berlin and flew out of Koln. This time was no different. Koln was another city my wife lived in and it also happened to be where we met up with her mother and twin sister, here on a completely unrelated vacation. (If you think that’s weird, this weekend they are meeting up with Stephanie’s older sister, also there on an independently planned trip! Talk about serendipity!)

Though I had spend quite a bit of time at the Koln Cathedral the last time I was here, you don’t skip something this magnificent, no matter how many times you’ve seen it. The cathedral is impossibly large. It staggers the imagination to take it all in. And yet, personally, my favorite visit in Koln was not the cathedral, but a tour of the ancient Roman churches (there are a dozen in all), specifically Grosse St. Martin. Mixing fairytale aesthetics with spartan Benedictine ornamentation, the church seemed to be a time machine. I had to but close my eyes and I was transported away. There is something about the Benedictines. Their trappings move me in ways I find hard to describe. One of my favorite places on the planet is next door in Austria, the Benedictine Melk Abbey.

We met up with some of Stephanie’s friends while in Koln, members of the same exchange program in which she had participated all those years ago. Kamila and Suzanna simply stayed in Germany when the program ended. Suzanna married a German, Oliver, though, the nights we were there, they were in the middle of filling out the reams of paperwork necessary to allow Oliver to move to the United States. We all had quite a laugh as Suzanna read aloud the questions from one of the forms: “Are you now or have you ever been a terrorist? Please know that an answer in the affirmative will disqualify you from entry into the United States of America.”

Sometimes I have to stand back and examine the age in which I live through the eyes of the ancients. To wake up in Germany but lay my head down later that same day in Washington D.C. is a marvel of modern transportation that still boggles my mind, no matter how many times I experience it.

I’ve wanted to return to Europe -- to live there again -- ever since I moved back to the United States. I still do. So does Stephanie. Someday we'll return on a more permanent basis. Until then, we have New York City. Manhattan alone blunted those feelings, gave us some respite, and, like Europe, calls to us now that we have also left it behind.

Someday. Someday to you both. Be patient just a little while longer.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Purple State of Mind

This is a commentary I wrote for Christianity Today Movies. To read the original, click here.

You know the adage about never discussing religion, politics or sex in polite company? Craig Detweiler and John Marks never got that memo.

To understand where Detweiler, a filmmaker and professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, and Marks, a journalist, author and former 60 Minutes producer, are coming from, we must first go back to 1982 when the two roomed together at Davidson College.

It was Detweiler's first year as a Christian. It was Marks' last.

Twenty-five years later, Marks wrote a book about leaving his faith behind, Reasons to Believe. His first interviewee was his old college roommate. Similarly inspired, Detweiler decided to film their conversations, four in all, over the course of a year. Those sessions became the narrative thread for Purple State of Mind, a candid, thorny and relentlessly funny dialogue between two men who are just as unyielding in their divergent principles as they are the critical importance of their friendship.

Detweiler, reflecting the Hollywood styles where he lives, shows up in hip suits and a warm, radiant smile, speaking most often in colors and shades, an artist most comfortable with the language of beauty and emotions. Marks always seems to be dressed down, confronting each issue like the journalist he is, dissecting facts and figures with the burnished instruments of logic and reason.

Detweiler and Marks see America as a nation of speechmakers. More often than not, they contend, all we ever do is stand across a gulf and shout at one another, hurling salvo after salvo in a culture war that has left countless dead and wounded on both sides. Detweiler and Marks yearn for the day when the culture war negotiates a truce and embarks instead on a legitimate conversation that allows people with divergent views to learn from each other.

They don't pretend it's going to be easy. While Detweiler and Marks see the film as "a model for what's possible in a world that's becoming a shooting match," their conversations are infused with very real, often very raw emotions. Conversation does not preclude conviction. But it does necessitate empathy. There are times that both men appear to be working out their salvation (or lack thereof) with the utmost fear and trembling.

Though the film's title—pointing to an ideal in which red and blue state values are fused—would indicate that politics is the prime mover of the debate, it acts more as a metaphor for a greater conversation in which men who occupy two separate worlds come together to find common ground.

Detweiler and Marks begin politely enough, delving into their shared pasts, their mutual distaste of politicized religion, the seasons abroad that altered their established polarities, the tragedies still raw enough to coax tears, the families that fuel them, and the disagreements that fundamentally separate their worldviews.

As a person of faith, Detweiler is deeply disturbed that Christians are known more for what they are against than what they are for. He is baffled that his Savior, a friend of the outcast, a defender of the defenseless, and a champion of the downtrodden, could have been perverted into a standard-bearer for judgmentalism, hypocrisy and hate. "This is the tension I live with," he admits. "How do I own my own people who so make me cringe on a regular basis."

The murder of Matthew Shepard, the gay college student whose brutal slaying was praised by some claiming the name of Christ, was the moment at which Detweiler withdrew from the culture war. "Call me crazy. Call me chicken. Call me 'liberal,' 'communist' or 'gay,'" he says, "but please, do not call me Christian."

Detweiler is continually shrugging off traditional labels. Weighed down with cultural detritus and centuries of transgressions done in God's name, Detweiler prefers the simpler "follower of Christ." He regularly distills Christianity to its fundamentals, stripping away layer after layer of what is said to be essential until he gets to the compressed core.

"I am desperately trying to separate Jesus from what people have been done in his name. Everything I read about Jesus indicates that the people he had the biggest problems with were the most sincere defenders of God. So when I read the Bible, who's in danger of Hell? Me."

For Marks, it was something Detweiler told him in their dorm room all those years ago that cracked the structural integrity of his faith: "God doesn't like artists because they ask too many questions." While Detweiler is the first to balk at the comment (the irony being that he now spends his life convincing Christian artists to ask the hard questions), it led to Marks making the resolution that if it came down to God or the truth art represents, he was siding with art.

Marks's spiritual egress was measured and methodical. He left the faith long before he left God. It was not a backsliding binge, but a slow, fully cognizant retreat. He sincerely wanted to believe, but found he simply could not. Some of Marks's issues are hardly new, though that makes them no less reconcilable or comprehensible.

Marks sees the Bible as a set of blinders, not binoculars. For him, the Bible acts as a barrier, cutting him off from Detweiler, and the Christian from true contact with suffering humanity. He views God as someone who "murdered his own son to make a point" and authored a book that "promises a mass murder of the kind that Charles Manson could only dream of."

For Marks, embracing hell, should it exist, is a moral choice. When asked about his reaction to the judgment seat, he says, "Why in hell should I allow you, who have been the head of a church that has persecuted and killed untold numbers of people, make me answer that question? The only moral choice I have, based upon what your son taught, is to say no, I will not believe. You, the God of this story, do not have the right to ask that question of me."

Marks's vitriol is not based on liberal texts or atheist playbooks. While working as a reporter in the Balkans, he witnessed firsthand the atrocities of which humankind is capable. He saw with his own eyes a situation in which a religious war of words became a war of all-too-real bullets and bombs.

"If you can tell me there is a God who presides over some meaning there, I would have to say I don't give a crap. Because if that God exists, I am in permanent contention with him."

Detweiler possesses enough epistemological humility to know that he doesn't have all the answers. He sees Marks as a protest theologian, following in the long tradition of Job, parts of the Psalms and Ecclesiastes. Marks is the prophet whose anger and bitterness at God cannot help but find expression. And has its place.

Though Purple State of Mind is balanced by the polarity of its opinions, the film may find a wider religious than skeptical audience. And some of them may find Detweiler's stance untenable. Detweiler is not interested in winning the argument. Ultimately Detweiler knows he starts, not finishes the conversation. Fundamentalists may find Detweiler's faith even more dangerous than Marks's disbelief. Some might tar Detweiler with a liberal brush, even if he would refute the claim, just as he does all labels. Detweiler's views on homosexuality, political activism and even abortion, welcome as they might be to some (this author included), may not sit well with others. Marks even admits that it is difficult to position himself as the non-believer when Detweiler admits he has wrestled with so much doubt and difficulty embracing his own people.

Detweiler and Marks have been presenting their film everywhere from tiny coffee houses to churches to packed convention centers. Heady Q&A sessions inevitably follow. What is perhaps most surprising is that a film this deep, this raw and this emotionally charged could also be this funny. Detweiler goes so far as to call Purple State a comedy—and based on the boisterous response, audiences seem to agree.

The film acts as a cinematic bridge to plug the cultural gap across which the battle lines of left vs. right, gay vs. straight, atheist vs. believer have been drawn. It is a sincere, often messy plea to push beyond our respective political enclaves and wade into the middle ground where most people reside.

Purple State of Mind is about as honest a dialogue on the things that both divide and unite us as you will find. With authenticity that doesn't pull punches and intimacy that never loses sight of the big picture, the film recognizes that the conversation, not the conversion, is the commonality.

The film, which Detweiler sees as "a prayer, a hope," doesn't end with answers, simple or otherwise. It is an ongoing conversation between two old friends that spills out into theaters, living rooms and sanctuaries. The principles cannot reconcile their differences, but they, and by extension we, must be all right with that. We must get beyond our differences to the important work of listening and truly caring for each other.

"It can't be about arguing," Detweiler says. "When we argue, even if we win, we lose."

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

I Knew There Was a Reason I Liked This Guy

According to SlashFilm, a website dedicated to movie news, Barack Obama's favorite films are The Godfather, Parts I and II and...wait for it...Lawrence of Arabia -- quite simply the greatest move ever made, in my...our humble opinion.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Little Minx

I am constantly amazed by the audacious power of the short film. And I shouldn't be. I have seen numerous short films that compress, in mere minutes, the sort of muscular storytelling and palpable emotion that many feature films never come close to touching.

Case in point: the “Exquisite Corpse” film series. Based on the French parlor game of the same name, this series was created by the commercial production company Little Minx, a division of RSA Films (Ridley Scott’s production company) to showcase their talented lineup of directors working in film, television and commercial production.

Among the directors is my friend, and fellow NYU alumnus, Phillip Van. Phil and his fellow directors, Chris Nelson, Josh Miller and Malik Hassan Sayeed were charged with writing and directing their own short films, all following one golden rule: they must respond to the last line of text from the previous director's script.

The result was inspired, funny, tragic, mind-bending and unquestionably beautiful.

Below are some stills from Phil's entry, She Stares Longingly at What She has Lost.

Check out all the films in this series at Exquisite Corpse.

To see other films Phil has made, click here.

Ut In Omnibus Glorificetur Deus